Why are we so Pessimistic in an Era of Such Great Progress?

It’s true, we are pessimistic as a society. You need only turn on the news, open your favorite web portal or scroll through your Facebook or Twitter feed to see that. Violence, corruption, hatred, poverty, inequality and all manner of bad things are out there screaming at you. Even a certain presidential candidate is running on a platform of fear and insecurity, trumpeting about how very, very bad things are.

Is that a realistic point of view? Is it accurate? Is it supported by evidence? Sure, there is usually some data involved. But data can be easily distorted, misinterpreted or simply misunderstood when offered without context. Google ‘misleading data’ and you’ll see what I mean.

Progress, or improvement, can be a helpful context for making sense of information. So how do we define progress as a society?

One commonly used indicator is gross domestic product – which is the total value of goods produced and services provided in a country during one year – or the per capita (per person) fraction of it. That’s a useful number because it measures wealth created. But it’s an imperfect measure because, as they say, money isn’t everything, especially when inequality is included in the equation.

Nonetheless, by those measures, the US is doing great. According to World Bank data, over the past 50 years, from 1965 to 2015, the US GDP grew from a little over $740 billion to almost $18 trillion, from a bit over $3,800 per person to nearly $56,000.  Definitely a great amount of progress here at home by that indicator.

And the global GDP over the same period has grown from almost $2 trillion to over $73 trillion, GDP per capita from just over $589 to more than $10,000.

The Social Progress Imperative attempts to go beyond GDP and looks at social and environmental indicators, such as nutrition, basic medical care, water and sanitation, access to basic education and shelter, personal safety, environmental quality, access to communications and tolerance. The group is also interested in measuring outcomes that matter in people’s lives, rather than measuring the input of how much is spent on programs.

The organization’s Social Progress Index demonstrates a strong direct relationship between increasing social progress and rising GDP per capita. The most notable exceptions to that role are in countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. So more money usually means people are better off overall. The United States scores 84.62 percent on the 2016 index, ranking 19 of the 133 countries right behind France.

Human Progress offers a cool utility called “Your Life in Numbers,” which charts change based on user-selected variables. Using this tool showed that, in the United States, over the past 50 years, life expectancy has increased 13 percent and infant survival 76 percent. Income per person has grown almost 150 percent and food supply 25 percent. People are going to school 31 percent longer. By all those indicators, too, we are doing pretty well.

So, why the disconnect? Why do we see things in such a dismal light? In large part, I suspect, it’s because we’re wired that way. As a society, we self-select for violence and conflict. Fear excites us, makes us feel alive. Maybe those are instincts left over from the days when we were basically just another flavor of meat, rather than the dominant species on the planet.

The mass media machines are certainly happy to fan the flames. Fear sells, and ratings rule. That’s why on a slow day the local news team may concoct a terrifying tale of a common, garden-variety bacterium ‘lurking right under your nose.’

It’s natural to respond to fear and pessimism, but that doesn’t mean we have to be ruled by it. We are civilized people, capable of overriding our basic instincts. This may surprise you, but optimism can be acquired. Trust that this is an important point for those of us who are not positive by nature: Optimism can be cultivated.

And it should be. Studies have shown that optimistic people live longer and have higher quality of life. In addition, optimism enables us to see past the problems and find solutions. That’s something we can’t do if we’re feeling down and hopeless.

One of the tools I’ve found useful for cultivating optimism is the Human Progress website. It offers regular updates on positive strides being made around the world by looking at data on things like mortality, hunger, poverty and education. The picture is pretty bright: things really are getting better, all over.

Another way to address the problem is by financially supporting the kind of progress you think we need more of. You can patronize companies that use innovative business models and giving initiatives. One business, for example, sells inflatable, solar-powered lanterns, with the promise to send one to an underprivileged country for each item purchased.

Another company offers the same kind of matching program with a baby blanket designed for new mothers in underprivileged countries, with pictographs to teach infant care, or you can address issues more directly by volunteering your time or skills in some way to benefit others. Volunteering, too, is good for you and makes you feel better!

In the end, don’t let pessimism and fear control your life. It’s really not as bad as it looks, most of the time. When you see a problem, rather than getting down over it, use that energy for fuel, and find a way to take action, so that you can be part of the solution.

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